Award-winning photographer captures the secrets of geisha

In more than 80 photos, photographer Philippe Marinig captures how maiko in Kyoto live and work.
In more than 80 photos, photographer Philippe Marinig captures how maiko in Kyoto live and work.PHOTO: PHILIPPE MARINIG

Lauded French photographer provides an intimate glimpse into the lives of geisha-in-training in his new coffee-table book

With yellow flowers in her coiffed hair, perfectly lined crimson lips and eyebrows drawn in with a tinge of red, a young geisha peeks out shyly from behind a door - and is caught on camera.

In another snap, a geisha hoists her kimono as she catches her breath against a backdrop of beautiful fall foliage.

These two stunning pictures are part of a new coffee-table book by award-winning French photographer Philippe Marinig.

Titled Secret Moments Of Maikos: The Grace, Beauty And Mystery Of Apprentice Geishas, the weighty tome about these Japanese professional entertainers is filled with more than 80 images.

Some are paired with haiku - short Japanese poetry - that were specifically selected to match the feel of the photographs. These are also translated into French and English.

The book costs $110 and can be bought on the website of Gatehouse Publishing, a bespoke publisher that puts out travel, cuisine, arts and lifestyle books.

In more than 80 photos, photographer Philippe Marinig captures how maiko in Kyoto live and work.
In more than 80 photos, photographer Philippe Marinig captures how maiko in Kyoto live and work. PHOTO: PHILIPPE MARINIG

This geisha project was a long time in the making for the 55-year- old photographer.

Since 2011, Mr Marinig spent months at a time wandering around Gion, the most famous geisha district in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. In Kyoto dialect, practising geisha are called geiko, while maiko are apprentices aged between 15 and 20.

Mr Marinig recalls that his first visit to get the book started was the hardest. Maiko were neither easily found nor particularly keen to be photographed. He realised that paying for access would be the easiest way to get his pictures, but he did not like that idea.

Instead, he took time to make contacts and eventually managed to get into the inner circle. Through this route, he got to know an owner of an okiya, a lodging house for geiko and maiko, who helped him get started.

Over the telephone from Paris, he says: "I spent lots of time building relationships because I didn't want to (shoot) a fake picture that was the result of money. I wanted honesty in my shots.

"I also showed them my previous work so they understood that I'm an artist and not chasing for a picture like a tourist."

No stranger to Japan, Mr Marinig previously photographed sumo wrestlers for a separate photo series about a decade ago.

For his efforts this time around, he scored an intimate look into how maiko live and work.

Some pictures document the maiko getting ready for a performance, undergoing a careful make- up ritual. Other shots show them dressed up in their delicate kimonos or on their way to meet clients.

He became a familiar sight among the maiko, who eventually allowed him to photograph them when they were relaxed.

So, he caught their mischievous glances and their shy smiles - a far cry from their rigid, professional demeanour.

Mr Marinig, who started his own company in South Africa in 1992 specialising in photo shoots for advertising and fashion, says: "The maiko is a very good model who knows how to perform well. That is her job. But I also wanted the other side... something that was personal.

"This wasn't a fashion shoot and we developed a friendly relationship."

Mr Richard Collasse, president and representative director of fashion and accessories company Chanel K.K. in Japan, calls Mr Marinig the "Geisha Tamer" in the book's preface.

He writes: "There is much more than painted faces, perfect kimonos and stiffened shells of hair. The formatted cocoon of the maikos is ripped away to reveal delicate humanity."

Mr Marinig was pleased that the okiya owner gave her seal of approval after seeing the final selection of pictures. "She said it was a good promotion of the geisha world and what truly goes on in an okiya."

While the book has been published, the quest to show more of geisha life is not over for Mr Marinig. He plans to go back to capture the last vestiges of a dying trade that struggles to attract new blood.

He says: "It's a very old industry that needs a big change if it wants to survive. There's more of that I want to photograph."

• Secret Moments Of Maikos: The Grace, Beauty And Mystery Of Apprentice Geishas ($110) can be bought at gatehousepublishing.com.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline 'Peep into the world of young geisha'. Print Edition | Subscribe